Billy Boy Miskimmin at CQAF

Virtuoso blues harmonica player prepares for the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival with some choice rock anecdotes

Mercy Lounge harmonica player Billy Boy Miskimmin is not only one of the most virtuosic blues musicians the Northern Irish scene has ever produced, but also one of the most experienced. After all, he has toured the world with Nine Below Zero and the Yardbirds, and played and hung out with the likes of the Doors, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck.

Mercy Lounge’s current CD single, ‘Cold Hard Ground’, shows Miskimmin’s instrumental prowess – a prowess which led Alice Cooper to describe him as the best harmonica player he had heard since the legendary Paul Butterfield. ‘I felt humbled,’ Miskimmin admits of Cooper’s compliment, ‘because Butterfield was incredible and I love his harp playing.’

Miskimmin acknowledges, however, that his main influence is Little Walter, who made his name playing on seminal Muddy Waters tracks like ‘I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man’. Tragically, Walter’s self-destructiveness led him to an early death, aged 37, in 1968, following a street fight.

‘Not many people argue about who was the greatest harmonica player,’ muses Miskimmin. ‘Little Walter is it, because he took it to new heights and found those semi-tone bends, which people didn’t know existed in the harmonica. He was fantastic.’

Miskimmin began his career in Belfast in the late 80s playing with Black and Blue Jam and then Blues Experience. Both bands were popular locally, but when English band Nine Below Zero headhunted him, Miskimmin became, for the first time, a full-time professional musician.

‘I was married and had just had a child, so it was a sacrifice for my ex-wife and myself but it wasn’t a difficult decision,’ he says. ‘I always wanted to do it, so I gave up the day job and just did it. The first two years were a struggle but [drummer] Brendan O’Neill was brilliant in helping my timing, which was a problem, and [guitarist] Dennis Greaves helped with the musicality. I learnt an awful lot.’

Nine Below Zero toured incessantly around Britain and Europe. Once, unforgettably, they even toured Bangladesh. ‘It wasn’t pleasant but it was enlightening,’ reflects Miskimmin. ‘None of us could shut off from the poverty. We just ended up in tears with people coming to us with deformed bodies and women who’d had acid thrown in their faces for begging.

‘But the gigs were great. The audiences were expatriates and wealthy Bangladeshis and they actually rushed the stage and mobbed us. It was crazy.’

Nine Below Zero included former Rory Gallagher sidemen Gerry McAvoy (bass) and Brendan O’Neill (drums). After Gallagher’s death in 1995, a street in Paris was renamed in his honour and Nine Below Zero played at the renaming ceremony.

‘The Mayor of Paris came and Rory’s mum and we had a great night,’ recalls Miskimmin. ‘Afterwards, when we came to the end of the street, his mum went, “Ouch, will you look at that?” and it was [the sign] Rue Rory Gallagher. And everybody just broke down and cried.’

Joining 60s legends the Yardbirds gave Miskimmin’s career another boost. The Yardbirds had, at one time or another, included Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, and had had hits like ‘For Your Love’ and ‘Shapes Of Things’.

The band had sundered in the late 60s, but had reconvened in the early 90s with original members Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar) and Jim McCarty (drums). ‘I did a month’s tour of Europe with them after I’d only met them once. That’s not easy with people you don’t know, but they were great to tour with because everybody understood everybody’s problems on the road.’

The Yardbirds toured America with the Doors, who still featured original keyboard player Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger but, long after singer Jim Morrison’s death, were now fronted by ex-Cult singer Ian Astbury.

‘We got me up on stage to play ‘Roadhouse Blues’ with them,’ says Miskimmin. ‘To stand on stage with Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger freaked me out because it was one of our top covers in Black and Blue Jam and suddenly I’m on stage playing it with them in front of 12,500 people. It was amazing.’

The band’s former guitarist Jimmy Page, who of course had gone on to lead Led Zeppelin, once sat in with the band. After the show Miskimmin chatted to him. ‘He looked like a wizard,’ he laughs. ‘He had his hair tied back and he just flicked his hand and went, “Magnificent, young man,” so I felt like somebody had cast a spell on me.’

Miskimmin also met Jeff Beck, at a party in Beck’s house. Beck had once replaced Page in the Yardbirds and had gone on to become one of rock’s most revered instrumentalists. ‘I expected it to be quite mental but it was a party for the Royal Horticultural Society! He’s a great, down-to-earth guy. His house is a Tudor mansion and we were drinking champagne with him and he took us around and showed us his collection of American cars.’

Bizarrely, while still with the Yardbirds, Miskimmin went to live in Australia. As a result he found himself undertaking some insane journeys, to fulfil his commitments with the band. ‘One trip was mindblowing. The Boda Blues Club is near the Arctic Circle in Norway and they booked the Yardbirds in January. It was minus 25 degrees and I flew from Perth, where it was 40 degrees, to Singapore to Heathrow to Oslo to Boda. And then flew back the next day.’

Wanting to write his own material, Miskimmin began to feel musically frustrated. Eventually, as a result, he left the band. ‘There was no creativity,’ he admits. ‘We were just playing the old hits.’

Returning home to Belfast, Miskimmin formed Mercy Lounge. The band, unusually on the local scene, concentrate on original material. ‘You could go round and round in circles playing ‘Got My Mojo Working’ for the rest of your life, but are you satisfied playing something someone else has written? We’re not.’

Miskimmin, as well as playing harmonica, is Mercy Lounge’s lead singer. Since he wasn’t the featured singer with either Nine Below Zero or the Yardbirds, one wonders how he has adapted to that role. ‘I’ve had to work on it but I enjoy being the front man,’ he declares. ‘It’s my natural state to be the entertainer. In the Yardbirds I was always elbowing people out of the way to get to the front of the stage.’

‘Cold Hard Ground’, the band's current single, is outstanding, and fans will be able to hear it played live when Mercy Lounge perform at the forthcoming Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast. Miskimmin enthuses about the self-written track: ‘[It’s] ZZ Top meets John Lee Hooker meets Muddy Waters. It’s gritty, has a good groove and a call and answer thing – all the things a blues should have.'

Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival runs from May 1 – 11. Mercy Lounge support The Blockheads (replacements for Wilko Johnson, who was forced to pull out due to ill health) in the Festival Marquee on May 3.